1. Giacomo

    Giacomo New Member

    Nov 10, 2021
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    When is it okay to omit dialogue tags???

    Discussion in 'Dialogue Development' started by Giacomo, Nov 10, 2021.

    Hi folks! New to these forums. I've got a nagging question that I can't find an answer to online.

    It's about dialog tag attributions and how often we need to put them in. I have several instances in my WIP where I use a single sentence to indicate stage direction for one character, in its own paragraph ("I sat on the edge of the bed"). Then in the next paragraph, I have the other character in the scene speaking--with no dialog attribution for them (no "he said/she said"). The idea is that to change to a new paragraph after the first character's stage direction implies that it's switching over to the second character. Here's an example:

    “This is blackmail,” I said.
    I flex my hands under the sheets. ***
    “But we’re not blackmailing you with your mother.” (she said)

    ***this stage direction is being used to imply the other character is speaking in the paragraph that immediately follows. It's like using stage direction instead of a line of dialog for the first character, to imply who's speaking in the following paragraph.

    Is that an okay thing to do? Or is it unclear who's speaking after the stage direction?

    Thank you so much!

  2. izzybot

    izzybot (unspecified) Contributor

    Jun 3, 2015
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    SC, USA
    I think your example is clear. Using "stage direction" like that to switch to one character, without them having a line of dialogue, implies a switch back to the other character in the next line.
  3. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

    Dec 24, 2019
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    Way, way out there
    I would always attribute a first line of dialogue (as you did here). Otherwise it can be confusing. But in certain situations after that you might not need to—for instance you've got one person blackmailing the other, so once you've made that first attribution it's very clear who's saying which lines. If somebody in that situation says "We're not blackmailing your mother." there's no doubt which one it is. Or if one says "You bitch, you'll never get away with this!" it's also clear who is speaking.

    It comes down to clarity. To answer the question in the thread title, it's OK to omit dialogue tags after the first line of dialogue and when it's very clear who is speaking. If it isn't clear then tag it. Things are pretty simple if you've only got two characters in the scene, but when there are more you'll need to attribute pretty much everything.

    Although I can think of certain situations where even a scene with multiple characters speaking won't need attribution after the first line. For instance if a crowd is accusing someone of being a witch (or of anything). All the angry accusatory lines are obviously coming form the crowd, and it probably doesn't need to be clear who in the crowd said each line. Realistically a person in such a situation probably wouldn't be able to tell. You could get away with something like:

    "Burn the witch!" came a voice from the crowd.

    "—and her accursed hovel as well!"

    "What? I'm no witch," protested the woman.

    "Tie her up! Throw her in the river!"

    "—and that nasty little ferret that whispers in her ear!"

    And the usual term for what you did there with the asterisks after it is an action beat. It's often used in place of a dialogue tag. When you do that you'd put a period or exclamation point at the end of the dialogue line rather than a comma and the action beat becomes a separate sentence. But (obviously) it can also be used the way you did, as a separate line.
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2021
  4. evild4ve

    evild4ve Contributor Contributor

    Oct 17, 2021
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    I'll tag onto this as I omit virtually all of them. My dialogues usually have the pov character as a defender, with another character challenging them. I mark the challenger's lines with em-dashes, but it also relies on the reader already knowing the characters apart by their voices and motives.

    If that breaches a cardinal rule, I can always ctrl+f all the em-dashes and do it some other way, but so far my few readers haven't complained it's confusing.

    His eyes only widen if the words on the page make the reader's eyes widen.
  5. Travalgar

    Travalgar Active Member

    Sep 1, 2021
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    I usually omit dialogue tags on subsequent speeches within a contained dialog, given that the first speech has already been tagged.
    "You're as stupid as an ox," Dud said.
    "Oh yeah? Well you can't tell an end of a rope from a can of worms," Hamm replied.
    "Oh yeah?! Well you can't spell for shit!"
    "You can't even read, hollowskull!"

    I also don't usually put dialogue tags if it's clear who was speaking from the context.
    Jen sat on the lonely chair in the middle of the quiet room.
    "Whew. That was intense."

    I'm sure there are other cases, too.

    Also, what are stage directions? Is that for screenplays or stage plays?
    Oscar Leigh likes this.
  6. Bruce Johnson

    Bruce Johnson Contributor Contributor

    Jan 9, 2021
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    I'm guessing the OP means action beats instead of stage directions.

    As far as I know, dialogue tags aren't really an issue with scripts, you just list who is the speaker before their line or lines. Or if it's from an unknown speaker or is indistinct, but otherwise, I'd think scripts don't have to worry about finessing dialogue tags and typical beats like 'eyebrows furrowed' or 'clenched fists'. Maybe there's more to it than that though.
  7. Tim D. Smith

    Tim D. Smith Member

    Jan 21, 2022
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    Gulf Shores, Alabama
    Currently Reading::
    The Baron in the Trees
    Hemingway is the poster child for missing dialogue tags. A good example with a short read would be "Hills Like White Elephants". Hemingway sometimes adds a short sentence or two in a subsequent paragraph and then goes back to the same speaker without using a dialogue tag. Those lines are meaningful, but they were part of what drove critics crazy.
    The book Ernest Hemingway on Writing is a good resource if you're interested.

    By the by, he was the focal point of my thesis for an MA, you know, if you're wondering about the nerdishness.
  8. trevorD

    trevorD Active Member

    Jan 10, 2021
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    I take whoever the last person was mentioned in the previous paragraph and assume the reader knows to continue with them during the start of convo. For example..

    John and Charlene went to Taco Bell and looked at the menu. She really liked to order chicken soft tacos for both of them, but his stomach was off that day. He tried to act normal in front of her, but his guts were telling him a different story.

    "I think I'm going to grab us a table."
    "What? I thought you were hungry."

    When there are only two people in the scene, I signpost the first dialogue and then assume you know the tit for tat that follows. If the convo flows for long, I'll toss in cues every now and then.

    Bill grabbed the football from his brother and threw it as far as he could. It hit the back fence with a loud thud. John looked like he was ready to punch him the in face.

    "What's your problem?" John asked.
    "You always act so childish."
    "You're the one that picked a fight with the Smith twins."
    "I was trying to defend you. I wouldn't have had to do all that if it weren't for how you were acting."
    "Brent Smith really grinds on me. He's been a pain I'm my ass as long as I can remember."
    "Well, that's no way to act in those situations.
    "Thanks, Dad," Bill said. " I'll try to act more like you from now on."
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2022
  9. Gary Wed

    Gary Wed Active Member

    Jan 2, 2019
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    Short answer: It's a mess and it's not necessary.
    If you drop to paragraph, you do so for a good reason. One is that lots of time has passed. Another might be a complete change in subject. USUALLY, particularly in dialogue, and particularly in short dialogue, you use the marker to indicate that a new actor is in play.
    So, I have a huge question for you. Who said Obviously? Did the I character speak about blackmail, then say obviously then flex his hands? Or, are we to assume that she said obviously and he did the talking in line one and acting in line three? What are the mechanics that the reader can assume?
    Well, if you are doing it right, He spoke, She spoke, He acted and She spoke again. Otherwise, your paragraphing is completely arbitrary. And, if you then think that you have to tell the reader that a paragraph mark means someone else is in play, I have to ask why you need to do that?

    Here is what you must take to the bank. New actor/new paragraph. Same actor/same paragraph. This law applies to all things, not just dialogue. When one person speaks and the next person acts, 2 paragraphs. If one person speaks and acts, that's one paragraph. Do that without fault, and the reader has every chance of staying with you, without tags. The only reason you feel like you need stage direction is you have not learned proper paragraphing procedures. So, using conventional paragraphing in your example, we have 2 actors, each trading paragraphs, and that's not going to require any special tricks. Furthermore, you are using a tag to say one person and *** to say what the reader ought to assume: inconsistent.

    This reads:
    "This is blackmail,” I said. (actor one)
    “Obviously.” (actor two)
    I flex my hands under the sheets. (actor one)
    “But we’re not blackmailing you with your mother.” (actor two)

    Otherwise, this reads:
    "This is blackmail,” I said. “Obviously.” I flex my hands under the sheets. (actor one)
    “But we’re not blackmailing you with your mother.” (actor two)

    And this reads:
    "This is blackmail,” I said. (actor one)
    “Obviously.” (actor two)
    I flex my hands under the sheets. “But we’re not blackmailing you with your mother.” (actor one)

    You are literally signaling every actor via paragraph. If you are inconsistent, that's where you start to panic and invent crazy things to compensate for the bad mechanics.
  10. Gary Wed

    Gary Wed Active Member

    Jan 2, 2019
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    I'd consider it required. The basic rule of thumb is that you dedicate a paragraph to an actor. If you shift to a new actor, new paragraph. There are exceptions to this, but writers who live by this standard develop a comfortable relationship with their readers and the pace of the work is not hampered by readers trying to figure out who is in play. This relates to dialogue, action or even thoughts. Think of a paragraph as a space wherein some topic lives, and when that topic changes, you signal that to the reader via paragraph. That can be shift in subject, shift in time, shift in person. The reader ought to know that if you paragraph, something new is in play, and that definitely applies to actors. While doing dialogue, lots of people don't speak, but they might respond (unspoken dialogue, such as a shrug or a smack in the face). While doing dialogue, the person speaking might act or think. We often can do away with dialogue tags if the person in play is acting or the new speaker is dropped to a new paragraph.

    Here's what will cause you to have to put in tons of dialogue tags:
    1) Headhopping. When writers head hop, the person in play becomes hard to follow, and thus more tags are necessary.
    2) A habit of not putting actions and words together or putting the actions of actor one and the words of actor two in the same paragraph. If you have poor paragraph discipline, you need to tag constantly.
    3) A lot of actors on scene. If it's two people, the next person in play is obvious. If it's three, not so much. But, if we have five actors on the stage and two are engaged in a discussion, you might get away with the reader assuming who speaks next for a while.

    A word about a dialogue tag: It isn't plot. It isn't in view (clearly the author puts it in as stage direction). It is like a road sign that is in the way of the national park you came to enjoy. Conversely, an action bite is plot. It directly contributes to the story. Thus, the choice between, Joe said, and Joe kicked Mark in the ass, is significant. That isn't to say that dialogue tags don't have their place, nor is it to say that they are all that intrusive, but just as a point of fact, one adds to story and the other does not.

    Example, wherein Powaqa and Okemos are talking while in a group, so we assume each speaker, after which the others come into more focus:

    “Well, my name is Pawa Stevens, and I’m the girl the Catholics want to murder.”


    “It’s political.”

    “Everyone says it’s political.” Okemos smirked.

    “Alright, it’s religious, then.”

    “Everything is religious. I read a book, once.” He left it at that, as if everyone knew which book, and it’d only been the one.

    “Forget it. How do I go about asking Aayaash to come?”

    Everyone shrugged.

    Powaqa rolled her eyes. This was silly. It was the middle of the day. The lodge was smoky. Nobody had any idea what to do, and the National Guard was probably being called out. Alfred Hitchcock had sent the birds. That dream about cavalry shooting into teepees came to mind.

    “In this movie I saw, they smoked peyote,” Peter finally mentioned.

    Namid rolled her eyes.

    Okemos reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a reefer. “Here. We can smoke this. I bought one for later tonight, because of it being the acorn festival, but it seems like we need it, now.”

    “There must be a billion cops out there,” Peter said. “We’re underage.”

    “All the more reason to smoke it up before they search us,” Okemos said with a serious face.

    After a pause, Powaqa reached into the fire and pulled out a stick with a little flame on its end. She held it toward Okemos, her arm over the flames that weren’t as high as before.

    Okemos scooted around closer and put the cigarette to his lips.
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2022
    Oscar Leigh likes this.

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